Justice Department hacks

The Baltimore Sun

The report issued last week by the Justice Department's inspector general only confirmed what many had long suspected: Since 2002, the Bush administration has worked to deliberately undermine the department's independence from political meddling by packing it with conservative ideologues.

The report said administration officials trampled the department's long-standing policy of merit-based recruiting in favor of political litmus tests that systematically weeded out Democrats and liberals. The politicization of the department flies in the face of the Civil Service Reform Act passed in 1977, which was intended to protect career civil servants from partisan pressures. Rather than insulate the department's career lawyers from politics, Bush administration officials created a new class of political jobs.

Those rejected on ideological grounds included Rhodes scholars, law review editors and honors graduates from top law schools. Applicants affiliated with groups pushing environmental or social justice issues, such as the Nature Conservancy, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Innocence Project, which works to exonerate wrongly convicted people through DNA testing, were routinely denied interviews. Meanwhile, candidates affiliated with conservative groups were often hired over far better-qualified applicants with politically suspect ties.

The corruption of the process, which the inspector general called outright illegal in many instances, will haunt the department for years and leave a mess for the next administration to clean up, be it Democratic or Republican. The department's integrity depends on public confidence that the cases it brings aren't driven by partisan grudges. The damage the current administration has inflicted in its zeal to install cadres of second-rate ideological hacks renders that argument a lot harder to make.

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